Much of this season has been about pointing fingers. Indeed, one of the reasons I started writing again was that an awful lot of the online discussion revolved around how bad our attackers were and how the likes of Dimitar Berbatov were leading us to relegation. I argued at the time that a bigger problem was in our defence and devoted a fair bit of energy here to pointing that out. (I concede of course that our attack isn’t very good either but the defence felt like it ought to have been easier to fix).
Anyway, some more interesting things have been written on the internet this week.
In one, Michael Cox notes that defending is very much a team discipline. We knew this of course, but his points are as ever, persuasively put. It’s one reason why I very much doubt that Brede Hangeland’s return is much more than a psychological boost: he was looking pretty iffy before he got injured, too (although maybe that’s because he was already injured. That could be it).
That’s not to say that defending isn’t important or shouldn’t be celebrated, however, though defending is fundamentally more of a collective task. Superb defending isn’t about outstanding individual contributions; it’s about teamwork, organisation and positional discipline.
You cannot solve the Premier League’s worst defence by introducing the world’s best defender — there would still be positional problems and disorganisation elsewhere in the back four. However, transplant Cristiano Ronaldo into the league’s worst attack and things would transform overnight. Ronaldo has the individual capacity to dominate games, create and score goals and to occupy multiple defenders thus creating space for others. His performance against Sweden, for example, was just remarkable — he completely dominated the game.
The other is by the Guardian’s Sean Ingle and concerns the full-back position. I’ve said it before but we used to sit in the Riverside by the Hammersmith End penalty box and would frequently look up to see a John Arne Riise run not being made. The space was there, the opportunity was there, but John wasn’t.
The additional physical demands are clear from Prozone’s data. In 2003-04 Premier League full-backs made an average of 29.5 sprints – any movement greater than seven metres a second – over a game. This season that figure is exactly 50. A decade ago the average recovery time for a full-back between high-intensity activities – any movement greater than 5.5m/s, or a three-quarters speed run – was 56.4sec. Now it is 40.4sec.
As Prozone’s Omar Chaudhuri points out, no other position in the last 10 years can match full-backs’ percentage increase in high-intensity activities or sprints. “The increase in their physical demands has been above and beyond the increased demands of the Premier League as a whole,” he adds. “And full‑backs continue to cover more ground than any other position except wide midfielders.”
Anyway, given the points made in Sean’s article, you do wonder about the wisdom of fielding two 30+ full-backs. True, Riether’s a good athlete, but even so.